My Fossil Railroad

(Update Below: June 1, 2010)

During my bicycle-barhopping expeditions in the Wobegon area I keep running into the Soo Line, often in little country towns that barely exist (Miltona + Carlos +  Forada, combined population 805, 5 or 6 taverns). This freight line, which kept chugging  along when the famous passenger railroads dwindled and almost died*, was founded by a Minneapolis milling group in 1883, during the era when the milling and railroad monopolies were competing to screw the farmers and each other. Its original purpose was to bypass Chicago and ship flour from Sault St. Marie to the East by boat. (“Soo” comes from “Sault”.)

This railway is now part of Canadian Pacific and has  been Canadian-controlled since 1888, and with connections to Winnipeg and Vancouver in addition to Minneapolis and Chicago, it is part of the Canadian network as well as the American.  It runs almost entirely through what are or once were wheat-growing areas, and in Minnesota it runs southeast from the northwest corner of the state (where there is nothing) through a thinly-populated area to Minneapolis — along the way it carefully avoiding Grand Forks, Fargo-Moorhead, Fergus Falls, and  St. Cloud (the only towns of any size).

The interesting thing for me is that the northern part of the Soo Line route almost exactly follows the “woods trail” of the fur trade’s old Red River oxcart trails (which remained in use into the 1860s, less than 20 years before the rail line was built.)  Where the oxcart trail turned east at Ottertail (pop. 533, but once an important place), the rail route drops south and hooks up to the east plains trail, which it follows to Glenwood or a little beyond, and then diverges again and goes directly to Minneapolis-St. Paul instead of cutting over to Saint Cloud as the oxcart trail did.

The Soo Line and the sleepy little towns on it (which were built as railroad towns in the first place) are relics of history, more Wobegonian than Wobegon, as if they hadn’t gotten the word that railroads are a thing of the past.  As far as oxcarts go (from back when railroads were a thing of the future),  there’s no sign of them left except some scattered French family names and place names.

Before the Plains of Abraham, Minnesota was on the border between Quebec and Louisiana, and half the state remained nominally French until the Louisiana Purchase.  The Pembina area in the northwest was settled by Europeans much earlier than anywhere to the south, and until after the Civil War it was oriented to Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay rather than southwards, so that northern Minnesota formed an interzone between the U.S. and Canada (or the U.S. and the Métis). The oxcart trail allowed the fur traders up north to escape the toils of the Hudson’s Bay Company  by trading in Saint Paul. (Immediately after the Civil War there was talk about Minnesota annexing adjacent areas of Canada all the way to the Pacific, but nothing came of that.)

As Hawthorne pointed out long ago, and as Henry James and T.S. Eliot reminded us, and as our teachers also reminded us if we made the mistake of majoring in English, we Americans don’t have old ruined castles &c, so we have to make do with what we’ve got.

* A number of bicycle trails around here have been built on the right-of-ways of decommissioned railroads. One I frequently use used to be part of the mighty Great Northern’s transcontinental route.


The Soo Line, Patrick Dorin, Superior Publishing, 1979

This book is for primarily for railroad buffs and includes dozens of pictures of locomotives, trains, depots, and bridges. For me, looking at  photographs of big black steam engines one after another is terribly nostalgic, since they were discontinued in 1954 when I was eight years old, and I was very sorry to see them replaced by the much less dramatic diesel engines. Steam locomotives are still a great metaphor for power, since they’re noisy and smoky and black, unlike the slick new diesels.

A nineteenth century map in the book clearly shows the line’s original orientation toward Sault St. Marie in one direction and Winnipeg in the other, while the 1970 map shows every station stop on the whole line. There seems to be a stop about every 7 miles, probably based on the old watering stops, and the map explains a lot of tiny, otherwise mysterious towns out in the middle of nowhere. In the 170 or so miles between Moose Lake (not too far from Duluth) and Plummer (in NW Minnesota, not near anything) the map shows 28 stops, of which 26 are still on today’s highway maps, all but two of them with fewer than 1000 people and 8 of them unincorporated.

(Links below)

Minnesota State Map

Red River Trail

Retracing the trail

The Red River trails: oxcart routes between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement 1820-1870


Pembina oxcart

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:05 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There was also the Otter Tail Power Company. I think the hydroelectric plant at Ortonville is/was theirs–we used to fish there. I also have a stylized otter letter opener carved from an Ortonville apple tree.

  2. Per the internets, Otter Tail power originally sold hydropower from the Dayton Hollow Dam on the Ottertail River, downstream from the town and lake.

    Where did you live? Ortonville?

  3. No, but we visited often.
    According to the company history page
    (where there is an early photo of the Dayton Hollow Dam), their Big Stone power plant went online in 1975, but it may have been coal fired. There was certainly a power plant (or something) there much earlier, in fact, as far back as I can remember. In the winter Big Stone Lake always had all kinds of ice fishing shacks out on it, but as children we were warned not to walk on the thin ice near the outlet of the power plant, where there was usually some open water. If you want details, this weekend I will be visiting someone who used to work for an electrical company in the area and I may (or may not) be able to find out more. But I take it your main interest is the railroad.

  4. In my few years in Minneapolis I always did like the name ‘Soo Line’ as reminder of the Key Line back in the old country (i.e., the East Bay). Nifty stuff.

  5. Your oxcart trail story involving the town of Ottertail created a bit of interest at the Nijmason dinner table. As far as the power plants at Big Stone Lake, the one at the south end of the lake was indeed Otter Tail’s, the newer one across the state line by Big Stone City was built by a group of power companies that went together–including Otter Tail. The old power plant, now decommissioned, was coal fired, but used lake water for cooling. The heated water created odd currents in the lake, in the winter weakening the ice in unexpected places. Every year someone would put a vehicle through the ice. The fish loved this warm water–my grandfather had several fishing spots near it and would throw the fish in a bucket as he caught them. He caught crappies.

    Another interesting factoid about Big Stone Lake is that it’s connected to Lake Traverse on the north side. While Big Stone Lake flows into The Minnesota River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Traverse flows north into Hudson Bay via the Red River. We had some discussion over a hypothetical raindrop falling somewhere in the marshy area between the two lakes and being split either three ways or two ways, but in the end we couldn’t figure out a third route for the raindrop. In the spring the south end of the lake melts first, flows north over the frozen river, then refreezes.

  6. “… railroads are a thing of the past.”

    If that is your view of railroads you are sorely mistaken. The railroads are carrying more freight than ever at a cost per ton-mile far less than truck. The lights would go out in many cities without the hundreds of unit trains of coal be hauled from the Power River Basin to eastern power plants. Thousands of containers of freight are moved daily across the country. Units trains move the corn and wheat harvest to market. Certainly nation-wide passenger service by rail is a shadow of what it once was because of the Americans love affair with the automobile but rail commuter service is critical in many cities, especially in the east.

    I won’t go on, you can research the subject yourself and learn about the state of this vital industry around the world.

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